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Fighters face Ruthian dilemma with young star Otani

by

Kyodo

What is a team to do when its best pitcher is also its best run producer?

The answer is to have him swing the bat as often as possible — even if the pitcher is 22-year-old Shohei Otani and has a record-setting 163-kph fastball. That, in a nutshell, is why Japan’s fastest pitcher is not pitching even when he’s fit and ready to go.

Although baseball people never tire of saying, “You can’t have enough pitching,” the Nippon Ham Fighters are proof positive that you can. When a player hits a home run every 12.6 at-bats, as Otani is currently doing, while hitting for a high average and drawing walks, you let him focus on hitting, not because it looks good, but because it helps you win more games.

Until July 10, the Fighters had the best of both worlds. In a season in which he set Nippon Professional Baseball speed record, Otani would bat as the club’s designated hitter during the week, take Fridays and Saturdays off before taking the mound — and batting — on Sunday. But that day in July the right-hander developed a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand and has pitched just one inning since.

Voted into Japan’s annual All-Star series as a pitcher, Otani attended the games as a DH. He won the home run derby before Game 1 and was the Game 2 MVP. Although his blister is history, the left-handed swinging Otani has continued to blister baseballs with his bat.

With pitchers Hirotoshi Takanashi and rookie lefty Takayuki Kato providing quality innings in Nippon Ham’s rotation, and Otani providing the lineup with his firepower six days a week instead of four, the Fighters overcame an 11½-game deficit to tighten the PL pennant race. With his team winning, there has been no rush for manager Hideki Kuriyama to ease Otani back to the mound — a process that will involve more days off with less payoff.

“It will be soon,” Kuriyama said Tuesday when asked about Otani’s next mound appearance. “We’re going to do it in a way that is best for the team.”

The situation is weighted with irony. As a high school fireballer, Otani told Japanese teams not to draft him as he intended to sign with a club in the U.S. major leagues.

“It’s not the only reason he signed with us, but a big reason was that we were willing to let him hit,” top executive Toshimasa Shimada told Kyodo News in May, after his team began dumping the DH on days when Otani pitched.

Yet, many players and former players have taken exception with Otani for not focusing on his pitching.

The criticism didn’t stop in 2014, when Otani went 11-4 on the mound at the age of 19. That year, he became the first top-flight professional ballplayer with 10 homers and 10 pitching wins since Babe Ruth.

Isao Harimoto, whose 3,085 career hits are the most in NPB history, was a harsh critic of Otani’s 2014 season, calling the youngster selfish for wasting his time on batting.

On Tuesday, the Hall of Famer said he’s had a change of heart.

“He’s hitting better,” Harimoto said. “I still want to see him settle on pitching, but when I actually watch him hit, I am not so sure of that.”

A new weight-training regime in the offseason, some technical adjustments to his stance and swing, and a more refined approach have allowed Otani to unleash his batting beast.

“He used to lunge at the ball with the barrel,” said former major leaguer Masao Kida, who now advises the Fighters front office. “He’d do that, roll over pitches and hit grounders.

“Hideki Matsui did that when he first came up, but he learned to keep his hands inside the ball and then unleash the bat head. That’s when he began hitting 30 home runs a year. And that’s what Otani’s doing now.”

Kida added that Otani has opened the team’s eyes about his upside as a hitter.

“This past year, the former owner Mr. (Hiroji) Okoso, said, ‘A lot of young guys can pitch, but as a hitter Otani has the chance to be a presence in the game like Matsui or Ichiro (Suzuki),’ ” Kida said. “I think Mr. Okoso is onto something.”

“There are guys who have great numbers like Yamada (the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada) or Tsutsugo (the Yokohama BayStars’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo). But which is better? Good numbers or a historic presence?”

The Fighters dilemma is not a new one.

Ninety-eight years ago, the Boston Red Sox went into the season with a 23-year-old left-handed pitcher, who two years earlier had led the American League in earned run average and in complete games the season before. But the kid could also hit and loved to hit.

That 1918 season, George Herman “Babe” Ruth split his time between the mound and the outfield. Playing in the deadball era at Fenway Park — then a pitcher’s paradise —Ruth led the AL in home runs with 11, all on the road, and went 13-7 on the mound.

But after that season, and his first taste of regular hitting, Babe Ruth would win just 14 more games as a pitcher, because the Red Sox and the New York Yankees chose great hitting over great pitching.

So don’t be surprised if the Fighters do the same for as long as they can.